By Mark Hodson, Sunday Times Travel Writer and Editor of 101 Holidays
Not everybody wants to take a plain vanilla holiday, whether it’s a bucket-and-spade break in Spain or a cruise in the Caribbean. For many people, the joy of travel is to get away from the crowds and off the beaten track. That could mean a jungle adventure or a desert trek, or it could simply mean finding an obscure holiday destination in the UK, or a different type of accommodation. Here’s my pick of the best holidays with a difference. If you’re travelling with kids, see our pick of the best unusual family holidays. Note: all the travel companies featured are personally recommended by our editors.
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Unusual holiday destinations in the UK
Or get down on the farm. We love these farm holidays for children with Holiday Cottages. In Cornwall, Gwel an Mor is a charming place to stay with Scandinavian-style wooden lodges and its own wildlife centre.
For an unusual holiday on a budget this summer, get on the water. Choose from a selection of self-drive boating trips with Waterways Holidays – you can rent a motor cruiser, sailing boat or narrowboat to explore some of the many beautiful waterways of Britain. No previous boating experience is required.
You have a good chance of spotting Minke Whales, otters, seals and porpoises off the west coast of Scotland on a four-night Mull Wildlife Experience. Details here. Other unusual holidays ideas in Scotland include a whisky tour of Islay and a steam train journey on the West Highland Line.
If you have a large group of friends or family, you can rent out a historic house in England, Scotland or Wales with Oliver’s Travels – a great way to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.
Explore Britain’s ancient history on an expert-led small-group tour with Martin Randall focussed on the country’s musical, architectural or artistic heritage.
Find more UK holiday ideas.
Unusual holidays in Europe
Most visitors to Spain head for the south, but Northern Spain is an especially attractive part of the country with wide unspoilt sandy beaches, rolling hills, historic medieval towns, vineyards and buzzing cities. Find out more from Vintage Travel. Find more unusual holidays in Spain.
In Portugal, you can get away from the resorts on a fly-drive holiday staying at historic pousadas. Prices start at just £445 including flights. One of the most rewarding regions to explore is the Alentejo.
If you enjoy gentle exercise, try a self-guided cycling holiday in Catalonia with Inntravel. If you like to be independent, take a hotel-to-hotel walking holiday which allows you to explore classic trials, such as the Costa Vicentina coastal walk in Portugal, and the Lycian Way in Turkey. Details here.
Did you know you can also go by rail to Venice via the Alps. If you want a real treat, fly to France by private jet. A day trip starts at under £1,000 per person from the airfield of your choice. Details from Jet Escapes.
For a fascinating, emotional experience, you could join a battlefield tour in Northern France or Belgium.
Get tickets to a festival or cultural event in Italy, such as the Carnival of Venice in February or the Verona Opera Festival where you can sit in a Roman amphitheatre to witness candlelit performances of classic arias. See a full list of opera holidays around the world.
If you want an unusual city break destination, how about Reykjavik or Dubrovnik? There’s St Petersburg, where the sun never sets in summer, or the intrigue of Moscow. Head for a traditional Christmas market break in one of the lesser-known German cities such as Koblenz, Wiesbaden or Freiburg.
You could head north to Norway where you can enjoy the Midnight Sun in summer and the Northern Lights in winter. Take a coastal voyage on a ship used by local people with Nordic Experience or cruise around the undiscovered Lofoten Islands.
In the same part of the world, Iceland is an unusual destination that offers natural wonders including glaciers, hot springs, volcanic craters, lava flows and waterfalls.
For a real taste of wilderness, head to the Faroe Islands which you can explore by rental car using tunnels and ferries between the islands. This three-night Faroe Islands Weekender is a great introduction.
See our pick of the best adventure holiday ideas.
Unusual long haul holiday ideas
Want something completely different? Why not take a volunteering holiday in Costa Rica, Thailand, New Zealand or India? You can combine unique travel experiences with luxury accommodation and voluntary work in a local community or wildlife project. Details here.
For cheap winter sun, try the Cape Verde islands where you’ll find superb beaches, islands and colourful local culture. There are six islands you can explore, all very different, from Sao Vicente – the cultural heart – to volcanic Fogo and lush green Santo Antao.
In the Canaries, avoid the busy islands of Tenerife and Lanzarote and instead discover the charming little islands of La Palma (which has direct flights from the UK), La Gomera which is reached by ferry crossing from Tenerife or tiny La Graciosa just north of Lanzarote.
South America is neglected by many British tourists. Argentina is an amazing country packed with treats, such as the glacier fields of Patagonia and the wild pampas regions. Brazil has vibrant cities, paradise beaches, jungle, wildlife parks and mountain adventures. Meanwhile, the Galapagos is on many people’s bucket list.
Another unusual – and fabulously exotic – beach destination is the South Pacific. The indigenous culture in Tahiti, Fiji and the Cook Islands will leave you just as breathless as the corals and white sand beaches.
In Asia, Japan is one of the world’s most exciting destinations. Choose from an amazing selection of self-guided and group tours from InsideJapan Tours. In Thailand, Experience Travel Group has a range of bespoke holidays that will take you beyond the beaches to find adventures and cultural surprises, from a street food tour in Bangkok to The Elephant Nature Park.
In Central Asia, you can attend some of the world’s most unusual festivals including the World Nomad Games and Mongolia’s Naadam Festival, which dates back to the days of Genghis Khan.
If you have some time on your hands and are looking for a personal challenge, how about joining an overland adventure by purpose-built truck. You can pick from Africa, South America or Central Asia with itineraries from five days to 40 weeks and more.
Last updated: 3 February 2020